Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act

 

One of the most frequently asked questions when a party is faced with litigation is whether or not they will be able to recover attorney fees. The general rule is that attorney fees cannot be awarded unless there is a contract provision or statute permitting their award. An exception to this rule is if there is a finding of bad faith on the part of one of the parties, which is a difficult standard to meet.

The rules in an arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) changed this general rule. Under AAA Rule 48 (d)(ii) “[t]he award of the arbitrator may include an award of attorneys’ fees if all parties have requested such an award or it is authorized by law or their arbitration agreement.” (Emphasis added.) This means that if the parties file a demand for arbitration on the AAA Demand for Arbitration form and check the box for attorneys fees and the opposing party files an answer to the demand on the AAA Answering Statement form and also checks the box for attorneys fees or in its answer demands attorney fees, they can be awarded by the arbitrator. At least one state court has determined that this is because both parties have “agreed” to the award of attorney fees.

Under the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-119(4), “An arbitrator may award attorney’s fees and costs to a prevailing party.” This is statutory authority granting the power of the arbitrator to award attorney fees. There is no similar provision in Mississippi’s general arbitration statutes found at Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-1 et seq.

The important point to take away from this information is if both parties demand attorney fees, be prepared to accept the risk of not prevailing on the merits of your case and being compelled to pay attorney fees even where the contract does not require such payment. When you negotiate a contract, know what any arbitration clause in the contract provides and consider whether you need to modify it to write out AAA Rule (d)(ii) and/or Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-119(4) to limit the award of attorney fees.

 

If you have been involved in a construction related arbitration and received an award, you should know it can only be challenged under the limited grounds set forth in the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-101, et seq. One of the grounds for challenging an arbitration award is there has been an “evident miscalculation” by the arbitrator. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-135(1)(a).

The Mississippi Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, was recently asked what qualifies as an “evident miscalculation” in D.W. Caldwell, Inc. v. W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company [click here for the Supreme Court decision]. In that case, D.W. Caldwell, Inc. (“Caldwell”) had secured an arbitration award against W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company (“Yates”). When Caldwell went to confirm the arbitration award, Yates objected claiming that there was an “evident miscalculation” in the arbitration award. The circuit court, over the objection of Caldwell, allowed Yates to offer documents from the arbitration and testimony to establish the “evident miscalculation” and reduced the arbitration award.

The Court, citing its past decisions, reminded the circuit court that its review of arbitration awards was extremely limited and restricted to the exceptions identified in Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-135. Based upon the language of the statute, the Court concluded that “the ‘evident’ (plain, obvious, or clearly understood) miscalculation must be apparent from nothing more than the four corners of the award and the contents of the arbitration record.” Otherwise, “[l]ooking to evidence beyond ‘the face’ of the award or the arbitration record allows the parties to retry the matter in front of a trial judge.” The Court went on to provide guidance as to what might be considered by the circuit court in a proceeding to confirm an arbitration award holding “courts requested to confirm, modify and/or vacate arbitration awards are not at liberty to permit the examination of witnesses.” The Court therefore reversed the decision of the circuit court and remanded the case directing it to confirm Caldwell’s arbitration award.

The significance of this decision is that parties to arbitration should make sure that the hearing record is complete. However, even if the record is complete, thoughtful consideration should be given as to whether there are sufficient grounds to seek modifying or vacating the arbitration award before making such a request to a court.

 

Once a party receives an arbitration award, it does not necessarily mean that it will voluntarily be paid. Frequently, the party receiving the arbitration award must have it confirmed by the court and converted into a judgment. However, the party against whom the award has been made may challenge the award and seek to have it vacated. If the dispute involves an agreement related to construction, the parties must follow the procedures set forth in the Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-101, et seq. If the dispute is unrelated to construction, the parties must follow the procedures set forth in the Mississippi Arbitration Act ("MMA"), Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-1, et seq. In a recent decision, the Mississippi Court of Appeals found the party against whom an award had been granted failed not only to timely challenge the arbitration award but also failed to set forth sufficient grounds to justify vacating the arbitration award and reversed the trial court’s findings. [click here to view decision].

In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals first considered the timeliness requirements for vacating an arbitration award under both the MMA and the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"), 9 U.S.C. §§1, et seq. Under the FAA, a motion to vacate must be served within three months after the award is filed or delivered. 9 U.S.C.§12. However, under the MMA provides as follows:

An application to vacate or modify an award shall be made to the court at the term next after the making and publication of the award, upon at least five days’ notice, in writing, being given to the adverse party, if there be time for that purpose; and if there be not time, such court, or the judge thereof, may, upon good cause shown, order a stay of proceeding upon the award, either absolutely or upon such terms as shall appear just, until the next succeeding term of court.

 

Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-27.  Because the challenging party complied with neither of these provisions, the Court of Appeals found the trial court had erred when it concluded the challenger’s motion for vacation was timely.

In addition, the challenger did not set forth any of the grounds that might justify the vacating of an arbitration award. These grounds are very limited and set forth in 9 U.S.C. §10(a) or under Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-23. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court for finding otherwise.

Although this case dealt with the MMA, the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act also has strict filing deadlines for challenging an arbitration award and extremely limited grounds for challenging an award. It is therefore imperative that upon receipt of the arbitration award contractors consult their lawyer or the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act to determine the time limitations for modifying or vacating an arbitration award.

I recently came across a decision form the District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that caught my attention. Although it was not construction related, it addressed a situation where the parties had included the right to appeal an arbitration award in their agreement to arbitrate. [click for decision] This would appear to be inconsistent with the concept of finality, which is one of the public policy reasons for arbitration. Further, under the Mississippi Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-1, et seq. and the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-101, et seq. there are extremely limited grounds for having an arbitration award challenged.

Nonetheless, in this district court decision, the federal judge thought that even though there were no Mississippi court decisions addressing this issue, that if confronted with the question of whether parties could include a right to appeal an arbitration award for reasons stated in the arbitration clause, the Mississippi court would enforce the provision allowing an appeal. The district court, quoting the Fifth Circuit, stated that "when, as here, the parties agree contractually to subject an arbitration award to expand judicial review, federal arbitration policy demands that the court conduct its review according to the terms of the arbitration contract." (citation omitted)

There remain no Mississippi decisions adopting the position of the district court. However, this decision should highlight the need for contractors to carefully read arbitration clauses included in their contract. If you have concerns with any aspect of the arbitration clause, those concerns should be resolved before you sign the contract.